It may not have felt a whole lot like spring Saturday, but spring it is -- at least for area softball teams.
So even though the weather wouldn't have been conducive for a game or two Saturday morning, practices were in full swing and we decided to stop out at a couple to see how things are coming along.
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Two new coaches take over two of the more successful programs in the Fox Valley area, Cray Allen at Burlington Central and Jaci Corn at St. Edward.
Neither name should be unfamiliar to softball followers around this area. Allen is the former highly successful coach at Lake Park and Corn is a former all-area player from Elgin High who went on to a successful college career at ECC and Judson University, as well as seven summers with the Northern Illinois Lightning women's team.
Allen knew when he took the job at Burlington that things would be different from what he had become used to in his four seasons at Lake Park, three of which ended up with downstate trips, two of those bringing home hardware.
But Allen has embraced his new digs and was in a jovial mood Saturday when talking about his Rockets, and sports at Central in general.
"I love IHSA sports," said Allen, who graduated from Norris City-Omaha-Enfield High School and Southern Illinois University. "IHSA sports are special to me, and being here reminds me a lot of my hometown. The assistant coaches, the athletic director, the baseball coaches ... they've all been very helpful and sincere. It's been a smooth transition."
Allen takes over a BC program that was 251-105 and won seven regional titles and eight conference championships in 11 seasons under Scot Sutherland. It's a program that has won 15 regional crowns in its history and made three state finals appearances, finishing third in Class A in 2009.
However, last year was a down year for the Rockets when they went 12-13 and lost in the regional finals in a rough season that saw Sutherland resign over administrative issues at the school midway through the spring.
Assistant coaches Lowell Oranger and Bill Morrow finished out the season running the team and they're back to assist Allen this season.
"It's great having them back," Allen said. "They know the kids, and they know the community."
Community is important at Central, Allen is finding out quickly.
"I'm learning," said Allen, who won 135 games and coached 21 players at Lake Park who went on to play in college, including 2004 Gatorade National Player of the Year Stephanie Blagaich and Judson University senior and NCCAA All-American Nicole Dimiceli.
"I'm still trying to feel things out. The kids come to me and talk about their choral concert. It's all the little things that matter more out here. Everything reminds me of my hometown and it's refreshing."
Academics matter, too, and Allen was quick to point out that one of his team's goals is to keep its hold on the school's program academic achievement award, which it has won for five years-plus.
But above all, Allen is bit by the softball bug and he's been pleasantly surprised with what he's seen on Rocket Hill so far.
"I'm actually surprised at how hard these girls work," he said. "At Lake Park I had all-stater after all-stater and I won't say we're going to have that here but the work ethic is no different. They've taken the new drills and concepts and absorbed them. I feel they understand what I'm about and how I want to play the game.
"I feel like we've truly worked our butts off inside and now we have to transfer that outside. If these girls continue to work as hard as they have, this is going to be fun."
New 'kid' on the block
At. St. Edward, new head coach Jaci Corn, 26, says one of her biggest challenges is to remind her players that she's their coach.
"They forget I'm the coach sometimes," Corn says.
That could be because through last summer, Corn still played the game at a high level for the Lightning. She's retired from playing now and focused on coaching. She's also St. Edward's girls tennis coach, an assistant with the sophomore girls basketball team, and she coaches the Lightning's 16U travel team. She's also a private instructor at Fox Valley Sports Academy in Elgin.
"It's what I love to do. I want to teach the game," she said, adding that being the head softball coach at St. Edward does add a lot to her responsibilities.
Corn took over the Green Wave program from Mike Rolando, who won two regional titles and advanced to a supersectional in his three seasons. He and another of last year's assistants, Steve McShane, have stayed on staff to assist Corn with a team that went 20-15 last year but made an early first-round exit from regional play.
And Corn, who coached the St. Edward sophomore team the past three years, has her philosophy about how the Green Wave will continue to be a winning team.
"We have to play defense, we have to hit the ball and be aggressive baserunning," she said. "But the most important thing is being confident and being mentally tough."
Ready for more
And then there's Cary-Grove, where Tammy Olson is the dean of area softball coaches. Olson's Trojans are coming off a 32-7 season that ended with a heartbreaking loss to Elk Grove in the Class 4A supersectional at Judson.
So how much does that mean today?
"It's not the same team and we need to realize that," said Olson, who returns one of the top pitcher-catcher combinations in the area in Lindsay Efflandt and Sarah Leudo. "We need to use those experiences and the kids that were here last year need to help the new kids learn when to stay calm and when to get excited."
Olson says the Trojans are itching to get outside more as well.
"Right now we're just working on getting together as a team and working on our fundamentals," she said. "We're focusing on our infield. That's where we have the most replacements coming in.
"We have to build it piece by piece. Last year is over and it's time to make a new statement."
On March 25, we'll preview all of our area teams and there's so much more to get excited about this new season.
But just being around a couple of practices Saturday was enough for me for now. Bring on some 60-degree weather.